Existing on the tentative line between the mediums of photography and applied craft, lens-based artist and educator Nilupa Yasmin’s work is an intricate reconstruction of both art forms. As she pieces together personal stories from the different communities that she encounters, her work is in a constant state of unravelling, where she continues to discover her place within the warp of the world. Focusing on the two strands of community and self, her woven photographic work delicately displays that one cannot exist without the other.
Creating functional objects in pieces such as ‘A walk through Aston’ (2018) and ‘Grow me a Waterlily’ (2017), the Birmingham-born and based artist uses reflections on her own Bangladeshi heritage to create art that harnesses different aspects of both Bangladeshi and UK culture. Within the aforementioned works, copious images taken from the communities of Aston and her own home are woven into sturdy objects that can be walked on and sat upon – deriving inspiration from the Bangladeshi hand-woven mats known as Shital Pati. Her art is a bold celebration of the interwoven strength of both community and family, that favours collectivity over individualism.
The themes of knowledge and of inherited craft subliminally thread their way through Yasmin’s practice. As an artist who leads weaving workshops, she finds herself in constant conversations with the communities that she captures, casting off the stale preconceptions of the lone photographer in favour of a creative practice that borrows from the communal aspects of collective craft making: “A lot of my participatory and socially engaged practice […] [centres] very much around this idea of how crafts can be used as a way of community-building and a way of bringing people together.”
Recently, Yasmin has led workshops at the Midlands Arts Centre’s Culture Club, where she taught members to weave, culminating in a collective art project. Aimed at those aged 65+, the Culture Club provides arts and cultural masterclasses for those looking to learn new skills within a collective space. It is both a space for learning and for coming together.
Musing on her time spent with the Culture Club, Yasmin tells me about the history of weaving circles where “communities and villages would come together and weave pieces”. It is this traditional practice that spurred a drive to pass on her own skills in a similar environment. During the workshops, participants shared their own personal stories revealing similar experiences of inheriting craft skills such as “sewing [which had] been passed down [or] inherited [through either] their Mums or Aunties that taught them to sew”.
Alongside teaching her craft skills to members of the community, Yasmin often depicts communities from in and around Coventry and Birmingham (as well as a 2019 commission in Brixton, London). A dialogue between community and culture is touched upon in ‘A walk through Aston’, a work which weaves together photographs from the Birmingham town, with images of the imposing Aston Hall, to create a mat that was eventually placed within this magnificent building. The exchange created between this stately hall and its neighbouring community invites commentary on the often disconnected nature of culture; Yasmin states that ‘many locals who have lived in Aston for many years have never visited the hall’.
Nilupa Yasmin, A walk through Aston, 2018
The same can be said for many contemporary cultural spaces, where a feeling of isolation from those places is juxtaposed with their proximity. Commenting on this, she says: “A lot of people will come into communities and make work that doesn’t say anything about the communities, and it’s just in a box at some point.” Creating work in the interest of local communities is therefore a vital part of Yasmin’s practice, and within this current cultural climate of isolation and proximity, it almost appears subversive.
Locating her sense of self within the context of her community-focused work grew out of a personal discovery made when responding to the multicultural area of Foleshill, Coventry in her work ‘By the metre’ (2019). Steeped in rich craft history, Foleshill was the centre of Europe’s ribbon weaving industry. It was also a point of migration for people who had come to the UK after the Second World War. As Yasmin began to weave together her images in discovery of Foleshill’s heritage and its contemporary community, she learned of her own lineal connection to this craft,“I was quite fortunate towards the end of the project that I found [out] that my great grandmother was a weaver”. This became a “breaking point” in her practice that led her to explore her personal heritage further.
While the self-portraiture present in works such as ‘Phuldani’ (2019) and ‘Grow me a Waterlily’ (2017) appears to be indicative of the artist’s quest for self-identification, the abstract cityscape in ‘By the metre’ is instead tinged by Yasmin’s personal process of discovering more about her family history and the inherited nature of weaving. In ‘By the metre’ she has created a beautifully complex piece that explores how the timeless and transferable skill of weaving has not only led to the creation of this particular work, but has also formed much of the rich history and community of Foleshill. This work perfectly depicts how the two strands of her practice both interweave and overlap.
Yasmin explores how a craft practice like weaving has the ability to foster community and communicate complex stories of inheritance, whilst even threading together her own understanding of family and self. Inherited skill is something that we carry with us, taking pieces of the people who have come before us, to in turn, form parts of ourselves. Woven together throughout Yasmin’s art, are not just strands of broken photographs, but minute experiences and stories which contribute to a whole, complex being.
Yasmin’s current project ‘Tera- A Star’ (2021) is on display at the Midlands Art Centre from September as part of the nationwide Here and Now project.
Words: Charlotte Russell
Bio: Charlotte is an arts and culture writer who intends to challenge fine-art hierarchies by spotlighting practitioners whose work crosses the boundaries of fine art, craft and contemporary culture. She is currently on the editorial team for the Radical Art Review. Get in touch via Twitter.